That Vinegar from Modena

Modena, the city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, is world-famous for approximately three things – its legacy of Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars, the late opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and balsamic vinegar. The vinegar turns up in my life much more often than the other two products put together.

Of course, Modena being culinary royalty shouldn’t surprise us entirely. Its region is also home to Parma, whose prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano can make the world’s most exquisite ham and cheese sandwiches, and Bologna. That latter city is the only place on earth that Spaghetti alla Bolognese isn’t listed on menus that way, only as Spaghetti al Sugo. Modena is in great company. Yet its grape-based vinegar, especially when made expensive by barrel-aging 5, 10 or up to 150 years, makes it a place with a claim to fame of its very own.

Like a lot of things in Italy, the tradition of making aceto balsamico links back to ancient Roman times, where some variation on the technique is described by the likes of Virgil, Cicero and Pliny. The traditional method is very precise and extremely strict, by law no less, in a country that believes laws are mostly for foods and wines, not so much for people.

Specific varieties of grapes – the region’s iconic trebbiano and lambrusco – are boiled in water until the mixture reduces by half, resembling a dark purple syrup. After that, it’s aged in a series of wooden barrels crafted from different (but of course specific) woods, thus giving the resulting vinegar a subtle and intriguing taste. Sometimes older batches are added to newer to help with acidification, and sometimes simply specific bacteria, or both. The liquid goes into smaller and smaller casks during its aging, making for more intense, delicious flavors.

In your kitchen, balsamic vinegar is less abrasive in flavor than most wine vinegars, whether red or white. It is also thicker and darker, and to most people’s taste buds, it seems a bit sweeter, perhaps with a hint of the original sugar from the original grapes. Because of its distinctive flavor profile, as well as the cost of its aged exemplars, balsamic tends to be used in small amounts, often sprinkled over a salad, a crusty slice of hot Italian country bread, or even a finished dish of chicken, beef or lamb.   

Often thought of as medicinal, balsamic remain a regular part of many Italian grandmothers’ rustic cures. All the same, since the Middle ages, this particular aceto has been revered as whatever passed in its time for a luxury product. Today’s balsamic is made in Modena but also copied, more or less, in other parts of Italy and other places around the world. If you’re going to use another region’s or even another country’s balsamic vinegar, instead of aceto balsamico di Modena, we suggest you don’t tell the people of Modena of your disrespect.    .    

LAMB CHOPS WITH SMOKEY PLUM BALSAMIC GLAZE

Many years ago in New Orleans, there was a contemporary Italian restaurant in the French Quarter called Maximo’s. I took my family there often, and indeed it’s where my youngest daughter learned to ask for “lamb on a stick,” her way of ordering lamb chops even in restaurants where they were the most expensive thing on the menu. Inspired by my memories, here’s my best effort.

12 lamb chops on the bone

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ cup red wine

¼ extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

Salt and pepper

Glaze:

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Smokey Plum Jam

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper

Gremolata:

¼ cup dried parsley

1 tablespoon minced garlic

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Place with lamb chops in a bowl with the balsamic, wine, olive oil, Italian seasoning, minced garlic, lemon pepper, salt and pepper. Let marinate at room temperature for 20-30 minutes. Preheat the grill to medium-high. To prepare the Glaze, reduce the balsamic in a pot over high heat. Lowering the heat, stir in the honey. Italian seasoning, thyme and jam, cooking until jam is thoroughly incorporated. Season with lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon pepper, garlic powder, salt and pepper.  Grill the marinated lamb chops just 3 minutes per side, brushing with the marinade and, near the end, with a bit of the Glaze. Meanwhile, mix the parsley in a bowl with the minced garlic, olive oil and balsamic. Brush this over the chops in their final seconds on the grill, turning them quickly to produce flame for both sides. Transfer chops to a platter and drizzle with additional Glaze. Serves 3 chops per person. Serves 4.

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